Compensation is a predetermined form of payment provided to research participants for their engagement in a research activity. Compensation can include travel reimbursement  (e.g., a preloaded METROcard), electronic gift cards, and cash. A small compensation as an incentive for completion of a study is permitted so long as such incentive is not coercive. Teachers College Institutional Review Board (IRB) does not consider compensation a benefit. 

Distribution of compensation may also include other departments (e.g., accounts payable) besides the IRB office. Researchers should consult the appropriate sources to determine the best way to distribute payment to study participants.

This article will cover the following topics related to participant compensation:

  • How to disclose your plan to compensate participants for their involvement in a research study.
  • The potential for coercion and how to determine a fair compensation amount.
  • Guidance specific to certain study populations.

Disclosing a Plan to Compensate Participants

An IRB protocol submission is composed of the IRB Application Template and any documentation relevant to the study, such as consent documents, recruitment materials, or site permission forms (e.g., Informed Consent Form Template, Site Permission Template). In the IRB application and on consent forms, researchers should detail their plans to compensate participants. The Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) recommends researchers include “a detailed account of the terms of payment, including a description of the conditions under which a subject would receive partial or no payment (e.g., what will happen if he or she withdraws part way through the research or the investigator removes a subject from the study for medical or noncompliance reasons),” and that “payment [may] be prorated for the time of participation in the study rather than delayed until study completion because the latter could unduly influence a subject’s decision to exercise his or her right to withdraw at any time” (, Attachment A). 

A compensation plan should include…

  • An explanation of how participants will be compensated. 
    • (e.g., “Compensation will be prorated for completion of each study activity”).
  • The amount and form of compensation.
    • (e.g., $25 Amazon gift card, $30 cash, $10 preloaded METROcard, etc.). 
  • How the researcher will distribute the compensation to participants, including any identifiable information that may be collected during the process. 
    • (e.g., “Participants will be given the option to enter their email address at the end of the survey if they would like to receive compensation. Upon successful completion of the survey, the researcher will send a $25 Amazon gift card to the participant’s email. Participants’ contact information and survey data will be stored separately and their personally identifiable information will not be published or presented publicly.”)
  • Circumstances under which participants may or may not be compensated.
    • (e.g., “You may leave the interview at any time. Participants who complete 75% of the survey questions or more will receive a $20 gift card.” Alternatively, “You may leave the study at any time. All eligible participants, regardless of whether they leave the study early, will receive a $10 preloaded METROcard.”).
  • For studies that extend over the course of several sessions or days, consider prorating the compensation. 
    • (e.g., “You will complete three one-hour interviews over the course of 6 months. After each interview, you will receive a $20 gift card. After completing all three interviews, you will be given an additional $10 gift card. Your total compensation for this study is up to $70.”)

Potential for Coercion

“Influence is contextual, and undue influence is likely to depend on an individual’s situation” (, Attachment A). Federal guidelines rarely provide precise standards for determining undue influence. As a result, TC IRB reviews each protocol submission on a case-by-case basis. Based on provisions set by the Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP), IRBs make reasonable assessments “to minimize the likelihood of undue influence or coercion occurring. For example, IRBs may restrict levels of financial or nonfinancial incentives for participation and should carefully review the information to be disclosed to potential subjects to ensure that the incentives and how they will be provided are clearly described. Known benefits should be stated accurately but not exaggerated, and potential or uncertain benefits should be stated as such, with clear language indicating how much is known about the uncertainty or likelihood of these potential benefits” (, Attachment A).

When determining whether compensation is coercive or causes undue influence, the IRB will weigh the participant qualifications against the intensity of tasks and time spent on study activities. Participant compensation is typically metered on average wages (salary based on profession) and time spent on tasks. Compensation that is more (or less) than this amount should be justified by the researcher. 

The IRB will also consider how the researchers describe the compensation in their recruitment materials. In general, information about compensation should be secondary (in both content and formatting) to information about the study. Recruitment materials that format or highlight compensation as the main feature, or make compensation an inducement to participate in a study, are coercive and will be sent back to the researcher for revisions. 

An acceptable recruitment flyer might read, “This study will examine the effects of sleep habits and sleep deprivation on the brain and body. You must be enrolled in a university program to be eligible to participate. This study is conducted by Dr. Anna Freud ( at the Brain Lab, Teachers College, Columbia University (Protocol ID: 10-001). Participants will receive a physical exam and $100 for their participation.” 

An unacceptable, or coercive, recruitment flyer might read, “Chance to get $100 and Free Medical Care just for talking about your Sleep Habits! Email to get paid today!!” 

Population Specific Guidances

The IRB will also consider whether the compensation is fitting for the population of interest. For example, youth should not be given monetary compensation. However, small gifts such as pens or erasers may be fitting for a short, school-based study. 

New York City’s law states that NYC Department of Education teachers cannot receive compensation for participation in research studies. This means that TC researchers cannot give teachers monetary compensation for research conducted during class time or typical work hours. Researchers who would like to offer teachers compensation should conduct the study during the teachers’ personal time. Alternatively, if your research activities must fall during class time, consider providing teachers with non-monetary compensation (such as school supplies) or donations. For all studies, the IRB will make a decision on a case-by-case basis.

For more information on coercion and risk to participants, please review our guide to Understanding Potential Risks for Human Subjects Research. If you have specific questions about compensating participants, please contact the IRB at